Though there are bright spots, most minority students in Anne Arundel County schools continue to lag behind their white peers on high-stakes state exams, despite new efforts to train teachers and administrators to focus on closing the achievement gap.
Overall, the county posted modest gains on the annual Maryland School Assessments, exceeding state averages by 3 to 13 percentage points on the reading and math tests, according to scores released this week.
Highlights included 79 percent of sixth-graders scoring at the advanced or proficient levels on the reading test and 92 percent of fourth-graders passing reading and 93 percent of them acing the math test. Of the 10 top-performing elementary schools in the state, two - Shipley's Choice and Benfield - are in Anne Arundel.
The countywide numbers mask some sharp dips and rises in performance, however, even at schools once lauded for academic turnarounds.
School system officials said they hadn't had time to study all of the data but that they were proud of the improvement.
"I feel optimistic that we've seen some gains and sustained some gains, even as the bar has gotten higher," Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell said.
Aside from pockets of hope in fourth, fifth and sixth grades, the gaps between minority and white students' performance on state tests also have not significantly narrowed, though the district spent hundreds of hours training administrators to better meet and understand the needs of students from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds.
A 2005 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department requires the county to bring black students up to par with their white peers. The agreement followed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the African-American coalition RESPECT Inc. and about 20 parents decrying what they said was discriminatory treatment of black students.
In seventh-grade math, 48 percent of black students passed, widening the gap with white counterparts from 30 percentage points to 32. In third-grade reading, Hispanic students trailed white students by 12 percentage points, up from 8 last year.
But the gap shrank from 14 percentage points to 9 among black fourth-graders, 86 percent of whom passed the math test. District officials also said they were happy that black sixth-graders' performance in math jumped nearly 11 percentage points and Hispanic fifth-grade students' scores in the subject jumped 10 percentage points.
"Even though there has been some improvement, it hasn't been significant, given what we expected with" the Office of Civil Rights, said Jim Morris, chairman of the Anne Arundel NAACP's education committee.
"There are a lot of factors that go into making up the scores, and we are not looking at some of the root causes as to why the gap hasn't closed. There's teacher apathy, student behavior, facilities, parental involvement and all of those things have to be closely addressed. We still have a tremendous amount of work to do to further reduce the gap."
At predominantly minority Tyler Heights Elementary in Annapolis, which had moved off the state's list of failing schools in 2005 by posting double-digit gains in reading and math, the percentage of third-graders passing the math test this year dropped sharply, from 90 percent to 57.5 percent.
State data also showed 22 of 77 elementary schools in the county posting double-digit declines in the percentage of students passing the state reading or math tests, largely attributable to faltering test scores among third-graders. Twelve middle schools posted drops in math scores; at 11, fewer students passed the reading test.
Maxwell said he and his staff are studying what factors are derailing progress at some schools. He took a jab at County Executive John R. Leopold and the County Council for not fully funding the 17 percent budget increase the schools had sought.
The $868 million budget passed May 31 - with an increase of nearly 8 percent over the current year budget - but did not provide enough money to hire the counselors, social workers and psychologists that would have helped schools address the home and family issues that sometimes threaten academic success, Maxwell said.
"I fear that we will not be able to keep pace with the kind of improvement we want to make because we have not received the funds that we believe are important," he said.
Maxwell also cautioned that drops or gains might appear sharper at small schools where a handful of students can make or break a school's ability to meet state benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The law requires 100 percent proficiency in every subject for every student by the year 2014.
"Before we make a leap of judgment, we need to look further into the data and find out why we see some of the drops or gains," Maxwell said. "We're planning to review our math curriculum this year, and we'll be looking hard at those math scores to see what needs to be addressed, where our focus needs to be."
School officials said the gains are a result of recent efforts to link changes in curriculum to the research emerging from schools daily.
"Whatever we've gotten from the schools, we've studied and acted on it," said Beverly Pish, head of research and testing for the district. "We don't sit on things; we immediately act on what the data shows."
Pish also said the strong reading performance among sixth-graders, in particular, could be a result of a focus on early literacy. The district has closely studied literacy programs in first grade to see which are working and toss out those that are not, she said.
Yesterday, school system officials heralded success stories such as Belle Grove Elementary in Brooklyn Park, where 86 percent of the third-graders passed the state's reading test, an increase of more than 25 percentage points over last year's total.
Sun reporters Sharahn Boykin and Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this article.
County MSA scores
These tables show the percentage of Anne Arundel County students who scored at advanced or proficient levels on reading and math tests as part of the Maryland School Assessments. The official scores are online at the Maryland Report Card Web site (www.md.reportcard.org). Scores reported here from past years might differ slightly from scores online because of interim corrections.
Reading 07 06 % change
Grade 3 87.3 87.6 -0.3
Grade 4 92.0 89.8 2.2
Grade 5 84.0 84.2 -0.2
Grade 6 79.4 76.1 3.3
Grade 7 74.6 75.5 -0.9
Grade 8 73.5 73.0 0.5
Math 07 06 % change
Grade 3 86.6 88.3 -1.7
Grade 4 92.7 90.9 1.8
Grade 5 87.0 83.2 3.8
Grade 6 71.5 72.4 -0.9
Grade 7 71.5 69.7 1.8
Grade 8 69.3 69.2 0.1